Chris Gribbs, Assoc. AIA, is more than a little relieved that the 2012 AIA convention in Washington, D.C., is behind him. Each year, the managing director for the AIA convention is tasked with organizing the event—no small charge, to be sure. With annual attendance ranging from 15,000 to 25,000, Gribbs must consider a variety of factors. “Capacity for a very large trade show, dozens of concurrent classrooms, a large keynote room for over 3,000 people, thousands of quality hotel rooms all near the convention center: These are all ‘must-haves’ on a pretty extensive checklist,” he says.

But the organization is nothing if not organized, planning its annual gatherings 10 years ahead. And it’s fortunate—for Gribbs and his convention-planning counterparts in other industries—that some cities are investing in updates and expansions to their facilities as many trade shows, including the AIA’s, have grown considerably over the last decade.

Last year, the Vancouver Convention Centre became the first of its kind to score an AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) Top Ten Award. With nearly a half-million square feet of function space and much more for retail, walkways, bike paths, and waterfront public plazas, the LEED Platinum–certified project makes use of what had been defunct industrial space downtown, and features an artificial concrete reef and a 6-acre green roof with some 400,000 native British Columbian plants and four colonies of honeybees.

“Convention centers are becoming much more sensitive to their environments, and they’re leaning towards becoming more a part of the community, instead of just a place that out-of-towners use,” says Doug Ducate, president of the nonprofit Center for Exhibition Industry Research.

Ducate is a walking encyclopedia of convention center history, which is surprisingly brief. Sure, expositions with purpose-built (and sometimes transportable) structures have been with Western Europe and the U.S. since the 19th century—think Joseph Paxton’s iconic Crystal Palace for the Great Exposition of 1851 in London. But the convention center as a building type is a legacy of the last half century. “There weren’t any purpose-built convention centers or exhibition halls in the U.S. before the 1960s,” explains Ducate. “It was only after the interstate highway system and commercial introduction of the jet airplane that the idea of going halfway across the country for a few days seemed less crazy,” he says.

Design-wise, convention centers have since gone through four generations. The first generation boasted nothing in the way of frills: no finishes and few, if any, windows. The interiors were often simply poured concrete, making event organizers entirely responsible for ambient effect. “We call them ‘boxes with docks,’ ” says Ducate. The next generation, in the 1970s and 1980s, began introducing some design elements, but did little to lift the quality of the facilities. “Those we call ‘pretty boxes,’ ” Ducate chuckles, adding that the third-generation buildings added hotel-type finishes, and that what’s happening today is the fourth generation of convention center construction.

Certainly, designing convention facilities that balance desired ambiance with required utility is an enormous challenge. But that challenge shrinks some with each new generation, a kind of large-scale trial-and-error—and current convention center design represents a major advance. With few exceptions, new facilities are being stitched more meaningfully, more aesthetically, and more sustainably into the fabric of their locales, incorporating eateries, entertainment venues, plazas, and other functions for use by the surrounding community.

They’re also serving other worthy roles. In Philadelphia, where the AIA is scheduled to convene in 2021, an expansion project at the Pennsylvania Convention Center enabled the city to preserve and restore a beautiful historic railroad station and train shed. A renovation at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis has improved external pedestrian circulation with a long day-lit colonnade that enhances the facility’s pre-function space and creates a new welcoming effect. Inspiring examples go on, making an appealing menu for any event coordinator.

Gribbs certainly hopes work at the San Diego Convention Center proceeds without issue to meet its expected 2015 completion: The AIA is scheduled to convene at the bayside venue in 2016. In 2010, Fentress Architects was selected to work from base case designs to update the facility. The Denver-based firm has worked on a number of convention center designs and renovations, including both phases of the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, where the AIA will gather next year. While cutting some 30 percent of volume from the initial design for San Diego, the Fentress team developed plans that expand the exhibition floor into a contiguous hall, key to operational success.

But the team’s crowning jewel will be the roof. Inspired by elements of the Vancouver Convention Centre’s roof design, but hoping to improve on it by facilitating public access, Fentress drafted plans for an innovative watering system that capitalizes on the failings of existing infrastructure. Because the existing parking is located underground, the building displaces bay water and requires constant pumping into the sewer system at a staggering cost of more than $75,000 per month. The new plan diverts the water to the roof, where gravity would pull it through a system of weirs and baffles to be simultaneously cleaned by palettes of vegetation that thrive on brackish saltwater. If this engineering feat works, the plan will not only save the facility considerable operating costs but will sustain an alluring 5-acre rooftop public park.

“We wanted to make a place that could become a destination in itself,” says Robin Ault, associate principal at Fentress. “The idea was to give something back to the people who live here, so they would be able to come for a jog on the roof, bring the dog, have a picnic, watch the sunset over the bay.”

To learn more about the COTE Top Ten, visit aia.org/COTE, and to learn more about corporate architects and facilities management, visit aia.org/cafm.

View a slideshow that explores how convention centers are expanding their sustainable features at aia.org/practicing/AIAB095769.